I have often returned to the Psalms during troubling times.
When some of my seasons have been dark, the Psalms have been a balm for my weary soul. The same book that often declares God’s greatness is the same book that captures the suffering saint’s refrain: How long O Lord?
When I lost my brother a few years ago during a tragic accident, I found my way, through the silent tears, to Psalm 88. In the bookends of this chapter, the sons of Korah swim in the waves of uncertainty:
“You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves” (Psalm 88:6-7)
Korah’s sons capture for us how suffering is similar to the incessant waves of the ocean. They describe pain and suffering as a grave, a pit, death and terrors (v. 6, 12, 15). They give us relief that we can take our darkness to God. For “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (Psalm 139:12).
The Logical Problem of Suffering
Oftentimes when we go through suffering, the initial instinct is to rationalize pain and suffering. This “why” question is not just the reserve of the person who does not know God but also for the one familiar with God’s ways. One of the questions that I have come across as I have engaged in apologetics ministry is why does God allow suffering? As Christians who read Scripture, we can trace the occurrence of suffering in the world from either:
- Wrong choices of people (the problem of sin), or
- Natural calamities (the reality of the fall), or
- Spiritual warfare (the reality of evil)
However, underlying these three things is the truth that God is sovereign, in control of all circumstances – guiding them towards their proper end. So then why suffering in the first place? Why can’t God intervene in the choices of people, or powerfully restrain natural calamities or finally halt the plans of the enemy?
These questions of the saints find resonance among sworn skeptics. This intellectual struggle dominated the Greek philosopher Epicurus who offered:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent [all-powerful].
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent [cruel].
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
Epicurus, and many unbelievers after him, reason that if God is all powerful, he should be able to remove evil. If he is kind, he is moved to remove evil. If he is neither not able to remove evil nor is he not moved to remove evil, he is therefore neither all-powerful (omnipotent) nor all-kind (omnibenevolent). Therefore, evil cannot co-exist with God. If there is evil, there is no God. The skeptic concludes.
This is the intellectual problem of evil.
Understanding the Character of God
It is one that skeptics primarily wrestle with. However, the underlying assumptions fail to understand the character of God. First, if God is all-powerful he can create the type of world that he wants. He has created a world with creatures who have responsibility over the choices they make. Because God is not a robot, he does not mechanically control the world. God works sovereignly through human choices, such that God’s sovereignty and human responsibility mutually coexist – coherently in God’s view but mysteriously in ours. Therefore, God can be omnipotent while still allowing for a world of pain and suffering.
Secondly, God is kind. But his kindness need not be seen in obscurity from his intervention. God can and has intervened immediately in the lives of his saints. I am sure you can note periods in your life where God has done that. However, God can use roundabout means to intervene in the lives of his people. Consider the story of Job or the story of Naomi and Ruth in the Old Testament. Consider the cross – God using a scorned saviour, to redeem mankind. Many saints question the timing of God’s ultimate victory but God’s Word reminds us of God’s gradual working (Ps 62:1-6, James 1:2-4, 2 Pet 3:9, Rev 6:9-11). We must never cast our myopia on an all-seeing God. After all, God is alpha and omega, and his time is not restricted to our clocks. Therefore, God can be kind and still allow for pain and suffering in the world.
The Emotional Problem of Suffering
Although we can offer logical responses to the “apparent” contradiction of God and evil, the issue of suffering cuts deep into the heart. Pain and suffering are not just logical categories, but also emotional realities. Pain and suffering do not just result in logical knots, but they unravel our hearts, emotions and wills. This is why the initial responses to pain are shock, uncertainty, sorrow which, if not processed, turn into destructive actions – rage, isolation and other willful acts of disobedience.
Fortunately, the Psalms are big enough for logical statements about God and suffering, for instance:
“Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. . .” (Psalm 4:1)
“For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you” (Psalm 5:4)
“The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psalm 9:9)
Understanding the Emotional Nature of Humanity
The Psalms are also big enough to capture the emotional refrains of the suffering saints:
“How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1)
“O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?” (Psalm 74:1)
“For my soul is full of trouble, and my life draws near to Sheol” (Psalm 88:3)
Although it is important that we consider the context of many of these Psalms for the appropriate applications, it is obvious that we can identify with many of these statements. These refrains from the saints of old have a way of cutting through the reality of suffering in a way that offers a healing balm to our head, heart and hands. By reading and meditating on the Psalms, we face the reality of suffering with ample resources. The Psalms offer a robust framework for the Christian to enable them to face suffering with hope.
The Christian Worldview and Suffering
The eastern religions try to bypass suffering through offering “emptying” meditation. Karma reduces the reality of suffering to cyclic human actions outside of divine action. Animistic religions absolve the reality of suffering from human responsibility and cast them on elusive spirits and demons. Stoicism and secular humanism, reduce human beings from emotional beings to merely material minds, who can think away suffering. But the Christian worldview does not oversimplify suffering but helps the Christian to face suffering with hope.
Thus, the old practice of meditation (Psalm 1:2, 119:11, 27) is not an emptying process but a process of filling oneself with truths about God. Consequently, the suffering Christian is able to say that “This is my comfort in affliction, that your promise gives me life” (Psalm 119:50). Secondly, whether the Christian is suffering because of their own choices, those of others or due to an unexpected life change, the truth that God divinely acts through life offers a sure anchor for the Christian. For instance, God is sovereign over nations in Psalm 2 and 46. God is sovereign over the saint’s afflictions in Psalm 34:19-22. God is sovereign over the saint’s enemy in Psalm 56 & 59. Third, though spiritual warfare is real, the African Christian avoids the superstitious extreme of being in bondage to fear. She learns to discern the spiritual realities in her life through the lens of Scripture. Lastly, unlike the stoic, the suffering saint acknowledges the frailty of the human condition and learns to trust in an unchanging God.
Read, Meditate, Sing and Pray the Psalms
Various Psalms expand these realities at length. Through the contrasting paths of righteousness and evil, the Psalms contrast the lives of God’s saints and unbelieving skeptics. The Psalms offer a balm for the child of God and point to the zero-sum game for the stubborn skeptic. Some specific Psalms look forward to the Messiah – the wise King, who sacrificially redeems God’s people so that the nations may worship the glorious King (Psalm 2, 22, 45 and 110). They speak to the fact that even if our lives bear the marks of the first adam’s fall, they are redeemed through the last adam’s resurrection (Rom 5:12-21, 1 Cor 15:12-24). They speak to the fact that even if we are so well acquainted with sorrow in this world, those tears will be foreign in the new heavens and new earth (2 Cor 4:16-18, Rev 21:1-4). The Psalms teach us not to make suffering our idol, and instead to look to God who is unchanging through the different seasons of life.
Although many of the Psalms are written by different people, such as David, Moses and Sons of Korah, they speak the language of diverse saints across history. Although the Psalms are written within particular contexts, they apply to very many of our existential crises. Although the Psalms were written many years ago, they are an antidote for the saint today. For the suffering saint who has lost a job, buried a loved one or is overly familiar with hospital walkways during COVID-19, the Psalms are an antidote for the logical and emotional woes. Read the Psalms. Meditate on the Psalms. Journal the Psalms. Pray the Psalms. And as God strengthens you, sing the Psalms. They will be instruments of God’s healing.